Monthly Archives: June 2013

After 40 years, can Leeds finally stop being the “Motorway City of the Seventies”?

Talking to people in Leeds about utility cycling is a bit like trying to explain air conditioning to Eskimos.

I don’t mean to insult the citizens of Leeds here – I was one myself for 30 car-filled years. I love my friends and family, but they have lived their whole lives in a city which has one of the lowest cycling rates in a country with one of the lowest cycling rates in Europe, so you can hardly blame them for driving everywhere and thinking that’s normal and healthy. I understand that from this position the concept of utility cycling can seem baffling and outlandish.

Nor do I criticise anybody in Leeds who uses a car every single time they leave the house. There are few genuine alternatives for most people.

The bus system in Leeds is dominated by one bus company, almost to the point of monopoly, and there is no integrated ticketing system or smart-cards in use. So if you buy a day ticket on a FirstBus bus, you can’t use it on another operator’s bus. You can buy a “Metro Day” which is a ticket issued by the local transport authority, but that costs more and isn’t widely advertised.

As there’s no Oyster equivalent either, each new passenger has to have a conversation with the driver about where they’re going, hand over cash and wait for change. Multiply this by several passengers, or even twenty or thirty people at a busy stop, and you’ll see why a bus journey in Leeds takes much longer than it should.

There’s no metro system, just regular National Rail trains. These are only of use to those who live near a station, and who aren’t in a rush. They’re not the most frequent services either, to say the least, and some of them have certainly seen better days.

The cycling modal share in Leeds is pathetic. Even the commuting share, which tends to be about twice as high as the overall modal share, is around 1%. In the student areas it rises to the giddy heights of 2%.

But this is no surprise, as Leeds City Council has for decades promoted private car use above all else. Not long before I was born, Leeds proudly proclaimed itself to be “Motorway City of the Seventies“. That was actually used as a slogan for the city! You can imagine the sort of schemes they cooked up.

The planning decisions which were made back then have resulted in a dreadful transport environment. Even driving in Leeds is no fun, as the congestion is so bad. (It’s not London, but it’s bad enough.)

Morning Has Broken

However, there is a small ray of light shining through the diesel smog. Like many local authorities across the UK, Leeds, along with conjoined sibling Bradford, is at long last rousing from its 40-year transport slumber, awakened by the delicious aroma of central government money.

The two neighbouring councils have joined forces to come up with a grand plan to create a “cycle super highway” from the centre of Bradford all the way through Leeds to the other side. (If it sounds familiar, that’s because those in charge of Leeds have delusions of grandeur and will copy everything London and Manchester does.)

Someone at the council clearly has a sense of humour, as they’ve called their bid Highway to Health. In it, they’ve used the word “segregated” which is interesting as this wasn’t even on the menu a couple of years ago, but it’s seemingly a word which no cycle plan can be without today.

It promises “segregated, safe cycle lanes, secure cycle parking and activities to encourage cycling and walking” which sounds pretty good. And looking at the plans, they’re considering something which would give those 1970s planners heart attacks: “reduce existing carrigeway to provide cycle track”.

This is actually really encouraging. There’s plenty of space in Leeds for really great cycle infrastructure (not that lack of space is ever a good reason to ignore cycling). They’ve defined two types of cycle track, one Dutch-style and one Danish-style, and they’ve got the general idea right.

Leeds' two cycle track designs. One Dutch-style with a separating kerb, and one Danish-style with only vertical separation.

Pretty good, but not wide enough. Ideally the elevation of the cycle track would always be halfway between the footpath and the road, as it is in the Type 2 diagram.

They’ve also defined what their bus stop bypasses will look like, and they look pretty good to me.

Leeds council's bus stop cycle bypass design.

Looks okay to me. They’ve got the general idea.

Part of the route has access roads alongside the main road, and these will be utilised for cycling as part of the plans. This is a great way to get a long stretch of decent cycle route, almost for free, as long as they can discourage as much motor traffic as possible by using alternating one-way restrictions and other methods.

A False Dawn?

Unfortunately, while the general concept is a good one, they seem to have been designed by someone who drives everywhere, although they have watched that video of London’s planned cycle path along the Victoria Embankment. I doubt that those behind the plans have been to the Netherlands to see why cycling works so well over there.

(I acknowledge that these plans are a first draft, merely an attempt to get the funding, and I sincerely hope that the scheme designers take this constructive criticism on board should this project go ahead.)

For a start – and it’s a biggie – their minimum width for a one-way track is only 1.5m, and 2.5m for a two-way track! This is far too narrow, and makes me worry that the whole scheme is about to unravel. The standard minimum for one-way cycle track should be 2m (ideally 2.5m), and 4m for a two-way track. If the current widths are kept, Leeds’ cycle tracks run the very real risk of being seen as toytown infrastructure, dangerously narrow, and a waste of money.

It also looks like they’re planning for full-height vertical kerbs, which reduce the usable width of the cycle track by quite a margin. It sounds like a silly little detail, but it’s really not. Kerbs need to be suitable for safe cycling, and the standard UK road kerb isn’t good enough.

Toucan play at this game

Also worrying is the number of toucan crossings (combined cycling-and-walking crossings). They’re nearly always fiddly for bike users and confusing or unnerving for those walking. If we must sometimes put the two modes together, parallel cycling/walking crossings are legal, so why can’t we use those?

I’m not sure about their concept for when a cycle track meets a pedestrian crossing either. What happens if people are waiting at the crossing? Do bike users have to wait until the crossing is clear, or are they expected to swerve onto the footpath? Are people on foot expected to press the button then take a few steps back?

The Netherlands has solved these problems, we need to copy their designs rather than waste time and money with rubbish like this:

Leeds City Council's plans for when a cycle track passes a pedestrian crossing. A recipe for confusion.

A recipe for confusion, not fair on people riding bikes or walking.

Here’s one in action, near Leeds train station:

A photo of a cycle track which runs beside a pedestrian crossing. The cycle track gives way then disappears, only to re-appear after the pedestrian waiting area

Something is wrong here.

Well I say “in action” but this design only really works because so few people cycle in Leeds that the chances of a pedestrian meeting a person on a bike here are infinitesimally slim.

(Incidentally, the cycle tracks near the station are of a pretty high quality for the UK. It’s just a shame that they’re so very short and of limited use. Added July 2014: I say they’re good “for the UK” which is faint praise – they still have some severe flaws, as described in this Reddit conversation.)

Dutch-style junctions? We’ve heard of ’em

They seem to be having terrible trouble getting junctions right. Whoever drew these plans really needs to visit the Netherlands, as all the situations have been solved already. The current plans involve a mixture of ASLs, painted cycle lanes and toucan crossings, which simply isn’t good enough.

Again, the Dutch have existing, working solutions for all of these junctions. Why not copy them?

Detail from Leeds council's plans for the roundabout at Barwick Road and the Ring Road, where bike users are expected to use a two-stage pedestrian crossing with a pig-pen island.

I’ll be honest: this doesn’t scream “convenient” to me. (See it on Google Maps)

Do you think there might be a better solution here? Even though Dutch-style roundabouts are still undergoing trials, why not provide a single-stage straight-through crossing?

Note to traffic engineers: IT IS VERY DIFFICULT TO DO A 90º-TURN ON A BIKE.

Here’s another junction:

One of Leeds City Council's junction designs, a confusing mess of paint and toucan crossings.

“We didn’t know what to do here. Will this do?” (See it on Google Maps)

I like the phrase “on and off road facilities to be provided” which is traffic planner code for “this looks hard, and we didn’t know what to do, so we’ll put ‘confident cyclists’ on the road, and everyone else will just go on the path.”

I know this junction well, and I can tell you that the proposed design is a mess. They really need to go back to the drawing board on this one. It’s really not that complicated (it was a roundabout until about ten years ago) but they’ll need to put in some cycle-specific signals to fix it. Dare they make the cars wait?

And a final junction:

A junction on York Road in Leeds, where the cycle paths turn into on-road cycle lanes

Nice cycle paths, shame about the junction. Also note lack of any facility for turning right, other than cycling across multiple lanes of motor traffic. (See it on Google Maps)

This junction really isn’t that complicated, there’s no excuse for giving up on the cycle paths and putting in painted lanes instead. They may as well do nothing and cross their fingers. Junctions are where good cycle path design is needed most!

Oh Bradford, where art thou?

I must reserve my ire for Bradford though, as they’re letting the whole thing down. Their side of the scheme looks largely to be business as usual, with long stretches of “on-carriageway cycling”. If you’re lucky, there will be a painted cycle lane.

The section below is on Leeds Old Road, which is a wide road with a painted central strip. There is plenty of space for a proper cycle track. Bradford aren’t even trying.

Thanks for nothing, Bradford. (See it on Google Streetview)

They’re even suggesting “cycle on carriageway” at the enormous multi-lane Thornbury Gyratory, which is ridiculous and shows that they really don’t care about cycling.

The enormous Thornbury Gyratory in Bradford, where the council thinks there's no room for cycle paths.

This junction is HUGE, and all they’re suggesting is cycle lanes? Look at it on Google Maps. LOOK AT IT NOW.

Maybe Bradford is secretly hoping to become the new Motorway City of the Seventies.

In conclusion: possibly

Overall though, the scheme is a huge leap forward, and a world away from the usual cycle provision of bus lanes, blue signs and apathy (well, the Leeds side is, anyway – Bradford really needs to get with the programme). It’s physically a huge scheme too, crossing right from one end of the city to the other.

This is no complete solution, however. It’s still nowhere near the dense network of cycle paths and nearly-traffic-free streets which are required for mass cycling, and there are many details which need to be fixed.

But there are very many good points also, and the general concept is the right one – provide safe, protected space for cycling, away from motor vehicles.

With some alterations (fix the junctions, widen the tracks) then maybe – just maybe – Leeds can finally begin to leave the 1970s behind and one day become a 21st century European city.

 


 

Manchester is also up to something which is good but could be better. Two schemes, in fact – this one in the city centre and this one on Oxford Road. You can take a look and tell the council how to do it right – even if you don’t live there you can respond.

 

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Football-pitch junctions

We’re really not stuck for space, we’re just bad at slicing it up.

I was looking at a huge junction in London recently and was wondering if you could fit a full-sized football pitch in the space. (After all, it’s a measurement people seem to understand.)

It turns out, you quite often can (or very nearly). I superimposed an aerial shot of a major football team’s pitch onto various road junctions around the UK to see how much space was really available. Then I made them look nice and uploaded them here for your perusal.

If you’re not familiar with the scale here, have a look at these photos to get an idea of just how big this football pitch is.

 

Parliament Square, London, with two football pitches overlaid

Parliament Square, London. I find it amazing that you could fit TWO full-sized football pitches in here!

 

Holborn Circus in London, with a football pitch overlaid to show just how massive the space is.

Holborn Circus, London. A notoriously dangerous junction which is currently undergoing redevelopment (though the redesign looks pretty crap to me).

 

Euston Circus, London, which is as big as a full-sized football pitch

Junction of Euston Road and Tottenham Court Road, London. Still called Euston Circus despite being bulldozed through in the 1960s or 70s, this area is currently subject to road-works where the car will remain king.

 

Aerial photo of Picardy Place, Edinburgh, with a football pitch overlaid to show the size.

Picardy Place, Edinburgh.

 

Tollcross in Edinburgh, big enough for a football pitch.

Tollcross, Edinburgh. A junction which I hate, it’s some sort of 1960s town planner’s dream scheme. Awful to walk across, takes ages waiting at the many arms of this junction. I’ve never cycled there but I can’t imagine it’s much fun.

 

A junction in Leeds, absolutely masses of unused space, very bad walking and cycling conditions.

Kirkstall Road and Willow Road, Leeds. Recently remodelled, this area offers “provision for cyclists to use the new bus lane and enjoy a safer and easier ride“, as if that’s going to get people cycling. Duuuhhh, try again, Leeds City Council!

 

Hyde Park Corner in London is bigger than THREE full-sized football pitches!

Hyde Park Corner, London. I know the island takes up much of this, but the fact that you can easily fit THREE full-sized football pitches in the area tells us that there’s literally room for improvement here.

 

And a new, late addition:

The junction of Leith Walk and London Road in Edinburgh, into which a full-sized football pitch can almost fit.

Currently the subject of fierce debate, the southern end of Leith Walk in Edinburgh.

 

Do you have any more suggestions of wide roads and junctions to try this on? Let me know in the comments and I might do a follow-up.

All satellite images from Google Maps.

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Cycling-friendly joined-up thinking

Hello London visitors! Welcome to the UK capital city. It’s great for cycling here, and we’re not just saying that!

VisitLondon.com (the “official visitor guide”) tell us that:

“The banks of London’s river Thames offer long stretches of traffic-free cycling. Most of London’s Thames-side cycle route is on the Thames Path National Trail.”

Sounds great! So let’s follow that link to the Thames Path website and check out their “planning a trip” page:

“The Thames Path is a wonderful place to walk, but PLEASE NOTE it is NOT a long distance cycle route. See our FAQs about cycling to find the short sections which can be cycled.

Oh.
 

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Edinburgh’s highways department: stuck in the 1990s?

What the hell’s going on up there? I’m talking to you, Edinburgh!

With all the hoo-hah, pressure from the local cycling campaign and Pedal on Parliament, I was expecting Edinburgh council to get the message and produce some really great designs for Leith Walk. Instead, the “enhanced” design is full of ASLs, door-zone cycle paths and give way markings.

Next year Scotland will be voting on independence, yet the Scottish capital’s highway engineers remain staunchly loyal to the old-fashioned designs of the Department for Transport here in London.

A photograph of Leith Walk in Edinburgh, showing the wide road and unused space in the middle.

Leith Walk in 2012. Now, shall we use that dead space in the middle of the road or shall we keep it? (Photo: Google Maps)

Now, I don’t live in Edinburgh – I haven’t even visited in a year – so maybe I should keep my big nose out. But I think any road scheme which expects people on bikes to overtake stopped buses or ride in a painted door-zone cycle lane will not attract people to use the bike. Modal shift will not occur when scary manoeuvres are designed in.

Myself and my partner – let’s call her Pavlov’s Dog – are good barometers for cycling. We really want to cycle more, as we really enjoy cycling! It really doesn’t take much to get us on our bikes. So when we look at a road and say “ugh, I wouldn’t ride there” then you can bet your bottom dollar that it’s not going to tempt anybody from their car.

Edinburgh council’s plans for Leith Walk are a good example of this. It fails our test.

A section of the new Leith Walk design which doesn't even have a cycle lane for north-bound bike riders

The 1990s called, they want their road design back.

I did have some hope for this design, as there’s a cycle-path for travelling southbound (uphill). But it only exists for a section of the road, and don’t be expecting to get any momentum as you’ll have to give way at the junction with the minor road of Albert Street! It looks like the cycle path is right up against parked cars too, without any buffer space. So it’s in the door zone, and will be blocked every time someone wants to get in or out of their car.

So who is it for? Confident cyclists who make up the vast majority of bike users in the UK will just stick to the road anyway. Why would they use the cycle path if they have to give way constantly, as opposed to the road where they have priority at minor junctions? So it’s not for existing cyclists – they’re cycling anyway.

But it’s not for people like me, either. Even if I did use the short section of cycle path to go one way, my return journey would mean riding in the bus-and-taxi lane, or the advisory (not even solid-line) cycle lane. At some points on the route there isn’t even a cycle lane!

Another section of Edinburgh council's Leith Walk redesign which doesn't even have a cycle lane

Yeah, this is going to get little Timmy riding to school. “Just take the lane, kiddo!”

There’s a pointless two-way cycle path at the southern end of Leith Walk which seems to fizzle out at both ends. I’m not sure what a bike user is meant to do if using this – cross the road and join the buses and taxis? If I was happy to do that, wouldn’t I be on the road already anyway?

And why have they kept the pointless central median strip? That’s valuable road-space! Why do vehicles have priority over pedestrians at minor junctions? It’s legal, apparently, for the pavement to continue across the junction. This should be the new standard which we demand.

A section of Edinburgh council's Leith Walk redesign where the road is extremely wide, yet the cycling provision is poor.

This junction is so wide! Why is there only a puny advisory cycle lane heading north? And why all those give way markings on the cycle path?

So this design is a fudge which pleases nobody. It’s crap.

Looking at this plan, I suspect Edinburgh council is trying to do things on the cheap.

It should be rejected by anybody connected to cycling and walking groups.


 

Edinburgh council may have some dreadful planners, but they have some top-notch PR people. Somehow they’ve managed to spin this design as giving priority to cyclists and pedestrians. Ha! Are we looking at the same plans here?

Greener Leith mysteriously “welcome” these second-rate plans, and Sustrans “strongly backs” them too. Oh, for fucks sake!

There is a public session to view the designs on Tuesday July the 23rd, from 2pm to 8pm, at McDonald Road Library. I suggest that anybody in Edinburgh who doesn’t feel that walking and cycling are the priority in this design (and they clearly aren’t) should go voice their concerns clearly.


 

Mini-update: I’ve just been reading the “City Cycling Edinburgh” forum discussion about Leith Walk, and I found this insightful comment from ‘CalumCookable’:

“Leith Walk has got to be the widest street in Edinburgh – if we can’t achieve a piece of high-quality infrastructure here, then where can we achieve it? Edinburgh pretends to want to quintuple the rate of cycling in the city in less than 7 years – if it’s not possible to achieve a piece of high-quality infrastructure now, then when will it be?”

He’s quite right. This design proves that Edinburgh council’s plans to increase the cycling rate five-fold in seven years are a complete and utter lie.

I can’t understand why others on the forum are defending this design. It might be better than the previous version, but it’s still crap. Are people just too tired to argue any more? Will Edinburgh accept crumbs from the council’s table yet once more? If so, it looks like people in Edinburgh will still be going round in circles in another 35 years time.

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